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november/december 2008

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PTSD And The Death Penalty

Vietnam veterans George Page and James Davis are facing imminent execution in North Carolina. I was contacted by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL) about their cases. It’s clear that the plight of two unfortunate veterans is within the bailiwick of the Veterans Incarcerated Committee and the PTSD Committee. CDPL suggested that VIC consider writing to the governor of North Carolina requesting clemency for Page and Davis. CDPL believes that a request from a national VSO would merit the governor’s serious consideration on behalf of all veterans.

The death penalty is a controversial topic, like politics and religion, which often elicits strong sentiments from adherents and abolitionists. Veterans often have ambivalent attitudes towards the death penalty. There are strong supporters among us and there are some who adamantly oppose it. The committee is more sensitive to a sense of social justice when it comes to punishment in the first place, let alone in the rare event that culminates in a sentence of capital punishment. The military experience, even without combat exposure, assures that a veteran has a basic grasp about killing. Killing is what the military is all about—superior firepower and overwhelming force. Death is a central part of military life.

Perhaps the ambivalence about execution focuses on how it differs from combat killing. Execution is ritualistic—a carefully orchestrated dance of death. Combat is chaos in a fearfully charged environment. Combat is dynamic and terrifying, conducted under arbitrary rules of engagement where survival often comes down to chance and luck. The aftermath of combat indelibly alters a veteran’s perspective on life and death. That’s why asking a veteran about the death penalty often ignites a complex range of thoughts and emotions based on real-life experience.

James Davis and George Page are honorably discharged Vietnam veterans who served during the 1968 Tet Offensive, during which Davis was wounded and evacuated. He received a Purple Heart and then volunteered for a second tour. After their discharges from the Army, both men were diagnosed with severe mental illness and PTSD. Both received VA treatment, including in-patient psychiatric care and psychotropic medications. They were not unknown to the police and other first responders because of routine domestic and public order episodes. Their lives of mental illness were marked by a continually deteriorating downward spiral of despair that ultimately had tragic consequences in 1995, resulting in the killing of a police officer by Page and a horrific workplace shooting by Davis.

A review of their cases reveals that mental illness and PTSD were overriding factors in their offenses. The defense did introduce the fact that the men were mentally ill and that their behavior may have been affected by their experiences in Vietnam. But their psychiatric histories and diagnoses were inadequately presented and understated by the defense and vigorously refuted by prosecutors. That’s why the juries imposed the death penalty.

Davis has withdrawn his final appeal and awaits execution. Without a doubt, this former Army sergeant has been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder for decades. He may be the most seriously mentally ill person on North Carolina’s death row. As in 1995, he remains unable to act or think appropriately.

Likewise, Page has undergone extensive psychiatric and psychological evaluations showing he suffers from PTSD and neurological damage. He is a deeply disturbed, mentally ill veteran whose illness was exacerbated by his military service.

Despite having strong and disparate feelings about the death penalty, the Veterans Incarcerated Committee unanimously agrees that these two veterans deserve clemency and should not be executed for their actions in 1995. Davis and Page deserve to have their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. Executive clemency is the humane way to resolve the plight of these two old soldiers who were not mentally fit and are unable to discern reality from dementia.

The committee further feels that clemency will demonstrate to the new generation of psychologically traumatized veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan that we will give them due consideration should they require it.
The committee recommends that the North Carolina State Council and its chapters consider writing supporting letters to Gov. Michael Easley at the Office of the Governor, 20301 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-0301.



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